Punk Rockin' Honky Tonk Girl
One of country music’s best kept secrets, Elizabeth Cook seems to have had everything going for her, except the dice. Blessed with the willowy good looks of a Faith Hill or a Julie “Not Julia” Roberts, Cook has the clearest, most beautiful country alto (I think!) this side of the moon, significantly mad songwriting skillz, and a god-given love of performing.
She also has balls.
It’s surely no coincidence that the near-title track of Balls, “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman”, opens up like a punk rock “Stand By Your Man”, because Cook is all about coupling the old school twang and traditions to her modern day attitude. We’re talking Loretta Lynn here, or perhaps Wanda Jackson. Not Faith Hill or Shania Twain. As she’s jokingly said on her own recording of husband Tim Carroll’s song (sadly not the super-secret hidden track on Balls), Elizabeth Cook is a “Punk Rockin’ Honky Tonk Girl”. And her life story reads like a song. Maybe a whole damn cycle thereof: “I grew up in rural Wildwood, Florida, where my daddy was a welder. My mama’s job was teaching me to sing, keeping house and keeping him sober”.
Although Elizabeth Cook’s parents have 11 children between them, she’s the only one they had together. The baby of the family. Her mother was 40 when Cook was born, her father was 46. Mr. Cook had previously served 11 years for running moonshine with an organized crime ring. He learned two new skills in prison. He learned to weld, so that he could make better, stronger stills. And he learned to play upright bass. When he came out, he started playing in local bar bands, which was how he met Elizabeth’s mother, a hillbilly singer, guitar and mandolin player, and a songwriter. An alcoholic, Cook finally gave up drinking when his wife wrote a song for the seven year-old Elizabeth (already Nashville bound) entitled “Does My Daddy Love the Bottle More Than He Loves Me?” Daddy, says Elizabeth Cook, quit drinking that year. And there’s another song right there.
Balls is Elizabeth Cook’s fourth CD, though you’d be hard-pushed to find a Country Radio programmer who could name any of the others. She released her first in 2000, and the trials/tribulations she’s had with record companies since could certainly inform another song or three. Anyhoo, probably the easiest thing Cook’s done with her new CD has been to call it Balls, and to film a video for that near-title track with Nashville’s own Roller Derby girls. Both those ideas just fall under the heading of sensible self-promotion. Much braver, however, to continue to shun the glossy pop sound; to cover the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”, kick Lou Reed’s ass, and make it a country number whether it likes it or not; and to write an achingly beautiful song about a troubled teenage girl called “Down Girl”.
Elsewhere, Cook does good things with old sounds. “Times Are Tough In Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a light-hearted lament about the state of the music industry that is utterly dominated by a comically twanging mouth harp. “Don’t Go Borrowin’ Trouble” is a pure Loretta Lynn honky tonk rocked just-so by Carroll’s guitar. “He Got No Heart” rocks it like Wanda Jackson. The gently repetitive, melancholic and inspirational “Always Tomorrow” pitters perfectly under a precisely judged canopy of fiddle and piano. And “What Do I Do” drags us back to the honky tonk with some of the most outrageous vocal showboating this side of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But then what else would you expect from a singer who named her cats after the Louvin Brothers?
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